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Christianity as Mystical Fact
GA 8

6. The Gospels

The accounts of the “Life of Jesus” which can be submitted to historical examination are contained in the Gospels. All that does not come from this source might, in the opinion of one of those who are considered the greatest historical authorities on the subject, Harnack,62aAdolf Harnack (1851–1930), well-known German professor of theology, editor of Works of the Apostolic Fathers (1877), author of essays on New Testament literature and history, and the Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte, History of Dogma, 1885 (English transl. 7 vols. 1894–99). In 1892 he published an important controversial work on the Apostles' Creed, in 1893 a history of early Christianity, in 1900 a very popular work published in English translation as What is Christianity, (referred to by Rudolf Steiner in this book), and a number ot other works, some translated into English, among them being Luke the Physician (1907) and The Sayings of Jesus (1908). Rudolf Steiner frequently referred to the work of Harnack in his lectures. be “easily written on a quarto page.” But what kind of documents are these Gospels? The fourth, that of John, differs so much from the others that those who believe themselves obliged to follow the path of historical research in order to study the subject come to the conclusion: “If John possesses the genuine tradition about the life of Jesus, that of the first three Evangelists (the Synoptists) is untenable; if the Synoptists are right, the fourth Gospel must be rejected as a historical source.” (Otto Schmidel, Die Hauptprobleme der Leben Jesu-Forschung, Principal Problems of Research into the Life of Jesus, p. 15.) This is a statement made from the standpoint of the historical investigator. In the present work, where we are dealing with the mystical content of the Gospels, such a point of view is neither to be accepted nor rejected. But attention must certainly be drawn to such an opinion as the following: “Measured by the standard of consistency, inspiration, and completeness, these writings leave very much to be desired; even when measured by the ordinary human standard they suffer from many imperfections.” This is the opinion of a Christian theologian (Harnack in Wesen des Christentums, The Nature of Christianity). If one agrees that the Gospels have a mystical origin one finds that apparent contradictions can be explained without difficulty, and one also discovers harmony between the fourth Gospel and the other three. None of these writings are meant to be mere historical tradition in the ordinary sense of the word. They do not profess to give a historical biography. What they intended to give was already foreshadowed in the traditions of the Mysteries, as the typical life of the Son of God. It was these traditions which were drawn upon, not history. Now it was only natural that these traditions should not be in literal agreement in every Mystery center. Nevertheless the agreement was so close that the Buddhists narrated the life of their divine man in almost the same way as the Evangelists narrated the life of Christ. But naturally there were differences. We need only assume that the four Evangelists drew from four different Mystery traditions. It is evidence of the towering personality of Jesus that in four writers belonging to different traditions, he awakened the belief that he so perfectly corresponded with their type of an initiate that they were able to describe him as one who lived the typical life marked out in their Mysteries. Each of them described his life according to his own Mystery traditions. And if the narratives of the first three Evangelists (the Synoptists) resemble each other, it proves nothing more than that they drew upon similar Mystery traditions. The fourth Evangelist saturated his Gospel with ideas in many respects reminiscent of the religious philosopher Philo. This simply proves that he was rooted in the same mystical tradition as was Philo. In the Gospels one finds various elements. First, facts are related which appear to lay claim to being historical. Second, parables exist in which the narrative form is used only to portray a deeper truth. And third, teachings meant to be taken as the content of the Christian conception of life, are included. In John's Gospel no actual parable is present. The source from which he drew was a mystical school which believed parables to be unnecessary.—The role of professedly historical facts and parables in the first three Gospels is clearly shown in the account of the cursing of the fig tree. In Mark 11:11–14 we read: “And Jesus entered into Jerusalem, and into the temple: and when he had looked round about upon all things, and now the eventide was come, he went out unto Bethany with the twelve. And on the morrow when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry: and seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it he found nothing but leaves; for the time of the figs was not yet. And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever.” In the corresponding passage in Luke's Gospel he relates a parable (Luke 13:6, 7): “He spake also this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard and he came and sought fruit thereon and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig-tree, and find none; cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?” This parable symbolizes the worthlessness of the old teaching, represented by the barren fig tree. What is meant metaphorically, Mark relates as an apparently historical fact. Therefore we may assume that, in general, facts related in the Gospels are not to be taken as only historical, or as if they were to hold good only in the world of the senses, but as mystical facts, as experiences recognizable only by spiritual vision, and which stem from various mystical traditions. If we admit this, the difference between the Gospel of John and the Synoptists ceases to exist. For mystical interpretation, historical research should not be taken into account. Even if one or the other Gospel were written a few decades earlier or later, to the mystic all of them are of equal historical worth, John's Gospel as well as the others.

The “miracles” also do not present the least difficulty when interpreted mystically. They are supposed to break through the laws of nature. They do this only when they are considered as occurrences which are supposed to have taken place in the physical, transitory sphere in such a way that ordinary sense-perception could have seen through them without difficulty. But if they are experiences which can be seen through only at a higher level, the spiritual level of existence, then it is a matter of course that they cannot be grasped by the laws of physical nature.

Thus it is first of all necessary to read the Gospels in the right way: then we shall know in what manner they speak of the Founder of Christianity. Their intention is to report in the style in which communications were made through the Mysteries. They narrate in the way a mystic would speak of an initiate. However, they give the initiation as the unique characteristic of one unique Being. And they make the salvation of humanity depend on the fact that men cleave to this uniquely initiated Being. What had come to the initiates was the “Kingdom of God.” This unique Being has brought the Kingdom to all who will cleave to him. What was formerly the personal concern of each individual has become the common concern of all those willing to acknowledge Jesus as their Lord.

We can understand how this came about if we admit that the wisdom of the Mysteries was embedded in the religion of the Israelite people. Christianity arose out of Judaism. We need not be surprised therefore to find engrafted on Judaism together with Christianity, those Mystery-conceptions which we have seen to be the common property of Greek and Egyptian spiritual life. If we examine folk religions we find various ideas about the spiritual. If we trace back to the deeper wisdom of the priests, which in each case proves to be the spiritual nucleus of the differing folk religions, we find agreement everywhere. Plato is aware that he agrees with the priest-sages of Egypt as he sets forth the main content of Greek wisdom in his philosophical conception of the world. It is said that Pythagoras traveled to Egypt and India and was instructed by the sages in those countries. Thinkers who lived in the earlier days of Christianity found so much agreement between the philosophical teachings of Plato and the deeper meaning of Moses' writings that they called Plato the Moses of the Greek tongue.63Numenius of Apameia in Syria (latter half 2nd century AD), a Neo-Pythagorean philosopher and forerunner of the Neo-Platonists, is one of those reputed to have spoken to this effect, calling Plato “an Atticizing Moses.”

Thus Mystery wisdom existed everywhere. In Judaism it acquired the form it had to assume if it was to become a world religion. Judaism awaited the Messiah. It is not surprising that when the personality of a unique initiate appeared, the Jews could only conceive of him as being the Messiah. Indeed, this circumstance sheds light on the fact that what had been an individual concern in the Mysteries became the concern of a whole people. From the beginning the Jewish religion had been a religion of the people. The Jewish people regarded itself as one organism. Its Jao was the God of the whole people. If the Son of this God were to be born he must be the Redeemer of the whole people. The individual mystic was not permitted to be saved by himself; the whole people must share in the redemption. Thus it is rooted in the fundamental ideas of the Jewish religion that One is to die for all.64John 11:50—“Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.”—And it is also certain that there were Mysteries in Judaism which could be brought into the religion of the people, out of the dimness of a secret cult. A fully developed mysticism existed side by side with the priestly wisdom connected with the outer formulas of the Pharisees. This secret Mystery wisdom is described in the same way among the Jews as it is elsewhere. One day when an initiate was speaking of it, his hearers sensed the secret meaning of his words and said, Old man, what hast thou done? O that thou hadst kept silence! Thou thinkest to navigate the boundless ocean without sail or mast. This what thou art attempting. Wilt thou fly upwards? Thou canst not. Wilt thou descend into the depths? An infinite abyss is yawning before thee. The Kabbalists, from whom the above is taken, also speak of four rabbis. These four rabbis sought the secret path to the divine. The first died, the second lost his reason, the third caused tremendous desolation, and on!y the fourth, Rabbi Akiba, entered and returned in peace.65The Talmud, Hagigah, Chapter II, 14 b: “Our Rabbis taught: Four men entered the Garden (the Paradise) (or, ascended to heaven;) ... the first of them cast a look and died ... The second looked and became demented ... The third mutilated the shoots. Rabbi Akiba returned unscathed.” (This translation is from The Soncino Talmud, published by The Soncino Press Ltd., London, and is used by permission of that organization through S. M. Bloch, Director.)

Thus we see that also in Judaism there was a soil in which an initiate of a unique kind could develop. He needed only say to himself: I will not let salvation be limited to a few chosen people. I will let all people participate in this salvation. He had to carry out into the world at large what the elect had experienced in the temples of the Mysteries. He had to be willing to take it upon himself, through his personality, in spirit, to be to his community what the cult of the Mysteries hitherto had been to those who took part in it. Indeed he could not at once give the experiences of the Mysteries to the whole community. Neither would he have wished to do so. But he wished to give to all the certainty of what in the Mysteries was perceived to be truth. He wished to cause the life which flowed in the Mysteries to flow through the further historical evolution of humanity. Thus he would raise mankind to a higher stage of existence. “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet believe.” He wished to plant unshakably in human hearts, in the form of faith, the certainty that the divine really exists. A man who stands outside initiation and has this faith certainly will go further than one who is without it. It must have weighed on the heart of Jesus like a nightmare that among those standing outside there may have been many unable to find the way. He wished to lessen the gulf between those to be initiated and the “people.” Christianity was to be a means by which everyone could find the way. If anyone is not yet ready, at least he is not cut off from the possibility of sharing, to a certain degree unconsciously, in the stream flowing through the Mysteries. “The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.” Even those who cannot yet participate in initiation may enjoy some of the fruits of the Mysteries. Henceforth the Kingdom of God is not dependent on “external observances”: “Neither shall they say Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” With Jesus the point in question was not so much how far this or that person advanced in the kingdom of the spirit, as that all should be convinced that such a spiritual kingdom exists. “In this rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto you; but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven.” That is, have faith in the divine; the time will come when you will find it.